Franklin and the complexities of American national identity

January 13, 2006, Science Friday = Franklin at 300

Franklin as inventor, socialite and statesman, and take a look at the Tercentenary Exhibition in his honor, now open in Philadelphia.

America is often said to be an experiment in new national identity (or something along those lines). However, any closer examination of American national identity reveals more similarities with the traditional nations (and it bears remembering that those are really only several centuries old at most) and other in-group types of identity. This program discussing Franklin's legacy to America is an interesting illustration of that. (More in the book by one of the discussants on Franklin - on Amazon and searchable.)

Franklin is described as the First American in two revealing ways. First, he is the first American in the sense that he was the first to adopt an identity as an American as opposed to an Englisman living in the Americas. This was (reportedly) in reaction to the negative reception he received before the English parliament. Where he realized (and I'm quoting loosely from the program) that Americans were never going to be accepted as full Britons and might as well revel accept this label but make it into something positive. This is certainly a very common way for group identities to develop (be it for minorities or oppressed groups - islamist extremism has also been described in those terms).

However, the participants in this program also describe him as the first American in the sense that he was the first to personify the values or traits with which Americans have since been associated. (Or have ascribed them to themselves). One that struck me as particularly interesting was that in the context of Franklin's ingenuity, Americans were described as a nation of 'tinkerers' and one of the contributors claimed that that was how they are known around the world. This is interesting both in that it is wrong and why it is wrong. First, Americans are not generally known as a nation of tinkerers in the sense that Franklin was a tinkerer. The 'can do' attitude is different because it describes a belief that anything can be done and not the ability to do it in a particular way. But, more importantly, they even cannot be known for that, because pretty much every nation I know of thinks of itself as tinkerers and usually rates that as pretty high in its list of characteristics. The Czechs most certainly do, the English, the Albanians, less so the Russians but they do too. Therefore they are unlikely to ascribe that valuable characteristic to somebody else. In fact, I'm not aware (although there's bound to be some) of any situations where one group would think of another as tinkerers as opposed to itself.

Of course, identities are complex things and these examples deal with mere fractions of these complex webs of relationships. The 'melting pot'/'new nation' idea is certainly a part of that identity and not a small part, at that. But the real question is, does that overcome the sociocognitive properties that structure (I'm using this term loosely, as always) what we call 'national identity'. And my hunch is that the answer is no. In order for any grouping to work as a recognizable group, certain things have to be present and group identity (with all its exceptions and fuzziness) is one of them. And one representation of this identity is so called 'nationalism' which America is often said not to have. This example (and countless others which I'm hoping to collect here) show that this is wrong (although these types of statements are also a part of a nation's identity).

Right or wrong it probably makes no difference outside the academia although it would be nice if it would.